It's Not OK For Kids To Hit And Not Apologize

by Acacia Blixen
Originally Published: 
A boy in a green shirt pulling another boy's black shirt and doesn't want to apologize
PhotoAlto/Odilon Dimier/Getty

It is NOT okay for your 4+-year-old child to hit/push/kick another child and not apologize – and, if they won’t apologize, then there should be a consequence.

I am as hippy/crunchy as they come – I breastfed (twins) for 2 and a half years, I didn’t cry it out (with twins), I baby carried (twins), I (still) co-sleep 4 years on, I never left them with anyone else until they were happy to be left, I try really hard not to yell, and I care deeply about my children’s feelings. In fact, I’m so hippy/crunchy that we haven’t enrolled our children for school, as we prefer the unschooling philosophy to a one size fits all curriculum.

By conventional standards, I am definitely left of child-led center. And that’s fine. It’s also completely fine if you are not this way.

Even though others might think of me as “hippy-ish” in parenting terms, I actually come at it from a research point of view, rather than an innate earth-mother angle. I’m one of those people who reads the research and does what the research suggests is most beneficial for healthy emotional child-development (to the best of my deeply-flawed ability, that is). I am not saying that this is the only, or even the best, way to parent, I am just explaining that this is how I operate. So, even if the research suggests something which goes against my personal preference, I will likely follow the guidance.

I am not, for instance, a fan of guns. Before we had children, I would have thought that we would be a no-gun household – but, as it turns out, there is no correlation between playing with guns and becoming a psychopath – and indeed, if you don’t allow boys to play with guns they will simulate them out of other objects — perhaps it goes back to their original role as hunters and derives from an instinct to provide and protect.

I also think, that in a lot of cases, the satisfaction derives from the skill of hitting a target and not from the thrill of causing harm. So, when my little boy asked for a toy gun, I said yes. As it happens he’s not that interested in them, he played with it briefly and has never asked for another. Maybe he will in time, certainly I suspect he would have been more interested if I had said no in the first place. Anyway, the point is that I try to be consistent – if I’m going to parent based on research outcomes, then I need to observe the research.

The fact that research advocates a non-academic, free-play, outdoor, mixed-age group environment for children up to the age of 8 (at a minimum) makes life difficult for me. If I felt that primary school could offer this environment, I would gladly accept. It would mean that I would get a break from childcare through the day (I might even be able to earn some extra money) and it would, naturally, surround my children with other children to play with. If schools were better – which I have no doubt they will eventually evolve to be – and they basically offered under 8’s the opportunity to run around, outdoors and play with their friends for six hours a day that would be AMAZING. In lieu of this, I will be taking on the challenge of trying to create this environment myself.

So – I did.

There are obviously other people in our area who are not sending their kids to school (it’s one of the biggest cities in the country and actually has the highest proportion of home/un-schoolers in the nation), and they are contactable, to a degree, via various Facebook groups. Some of them even meet at regular intervals to give the children the opportunity to play together and maintain friendships.

The problem is that most of them seem to have dispensed with social conventions altogether… where I had expected to find/meet plenty of parents who, like us, would like to cushion their children from totally unnecessary childhood stresses (like exams for 5-year-olds), but also wanted their children to understand, that, flawed as it is, co-operative society is amazing – and that, no matter what we think about various existential issues, we are not absolved from helping to keep society/community/humanity together.

For this reason, we greet other people when they come into a room. We welcome strangers and introduce them. We make a special effort to introduce new children to existing groups and encourage them to be inclusive. We do not hit/push/kick other children and walk away without giving an apology or enduring a consequence.

It is this last one that particularly bothers me. I can’t imagine what the logic is regarding not welcoming people. I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to encourage an existing group of children to play with a new comer… to my mind, that goes against the whole hippy/crunchy vibe in the first place. But it seems to come from a determination to be child-led to the point of no intervention at all.

The problem with this is that it fails to observe a truly fundamental aspect of being a child – the infant/child/teenage brain is now understood to take up to 24 years to fully mature — so, while it is right to minimize the extent to which you impose your will on a child, it is not right to abdicate your responsibility all together.

In trying to set up a group for mixed-age children to play outdoors, the only rule that I asked people to observe was that there was to be no hitting/shoving/pushing etc. And that if a child hurt another child they would have to apologize or go home.

Obviously, they would be given time to calm down and supported through the apology, but, at the end of the day if your child hits someone else’s child and, upon calm reflection, isn’t sorry, then the other children deserve the protection of the group while that child and their parent work on developing empathy.

Apart from not being made to feel welcome by the home/unschooling group, the thing that has bothered me the most is the number of children who have hit/pushed/kicked my children and simply carried on their way like nothing happened. No acknowledgment or recourse. There is more violence in this group of “crunchy” parents than in any other group we have been a part of since the children were born.

The philosophy behind it is that a “forced” apology isn’t worth anything so we shouldn’t make children apologize to each other – instead we should help the child who did the hitting to understand their feelings and motivations. The idea is that you, as the parent, model an apology, by apologizing to the child who got hit on behalf of your own child (assuming that you intervene at all – which, I can assure you, a lot of parents don’t — they pretend not to have observed the incident and rely, ironically, on the social convention, that inhibits parents from telling other parents how to parent). I can’t begin to express how very wrong all of this is.

Firstly, there are some lines to be drawn and violence is one of them. It’s not okay for men to hit women, it’s not okay for women to hit men, it’s not okay for adults to hit children and it’s not okay for children to hit children. Violence is not okay. It doesn’t matter what your motivation was – you can’t cause other people undue physical harm.

Secondly, it’s not different just because they are children – they are proportionally the size of each other or, in some cases, the perpetrator will be much bigger than their victim, so it hurts them just as much as it hurts us.

Thirdly, in the first instance, it isn’t about the child who did the hurting, it’s about the child who got hurt. That child deserves the solidarity and protection of the adults; this means that the adults should be united in their expectation that, if you hurt someone, you must say sorry or stay away from the group until you are ready to do so. The child isn’t forced to “lie” — as one parent tried to moralize — because they have a choice, if they are not sorry and they don’t want to say it, then they don’t have to – they can choose, instead, to go home.

Of course, if your child is frustrated and hitting other children, then you should try to understand why and help them work through their emotions – that’s a given – with the caveat that if they slip up and hit someone while they’re learning, they will have to say sorry or endure the consequence. Even if the apology isn’t entirely sincere, the point is being made, that when you hurt someone else you must humble yourself to them, which means apologizing, even if you don’t want to.

I completely understand and respect that parents of kids with special needs and learning differences may have to approach discipline differently. But in unexceptional cases, if a child doesn’t like saying sorry and knows that if they hit someone, they will need to say sorry or be temporarily excluded – that child will stop hitting people.

As for the business of modeling an apology by apologizing on their behalf, that’s just ridiculous; it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the way that modeling works. The way that you model apologizing to a child is by apologizing yourself, in the daily course of things, for the mistakes that you make. If a child is used to hearing apologies from their parents they will usually find it that much easier to apologize themselves. Apologizing for a child simply teaches them that someone else will take responsibility for their actions and that hitting other children is tolerable.

It was also suggested that if one child hurt another they should be “kept close together” and encouraged to talk things through. Again, this is ludicrous. If one adult hits another, you don’t force the victim into close proximity with the person who assaulted them and try to make them talk. You remove the person who perpetrated the assault and support the injured party – a different sort of support should, of course, be offered to the perpetrator and that support should be designed to facilitate an apology.

You may be disappointed in me to know that I didn’t try and explain all of this to the potential parental participants – I just jettisoned the idea of the group. I wish I was a little bit braver – but I feel like either way I turn I am being treated like some sort of renegade. I think it’s utterly bizarre – like TOTALLY bonkers — that people on both sides of the fence think I am so unconventional, when all I am suggesting is that we should let young children play together and get them to apologize if they hurt each other. How did this become a subversive cause, the province of a stark-raving-dissident?

Meanwhile, since I suspect reason would be futile, the only way I have to protect my children from unprovoked, unapologetic abuse is not to hang about with adults who condone child on child assault. Why are the options limited to mainstream or off-grid? Surely there is a gap between enrolling our children into academic institutions from an early age — and encouraging them to grow up with a total disregard for social conventions?

If there are more parents out there who feel this way, I wish they would stand up and be counted – or at least stand up and be visible so that we could hang out together.

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